Pirates' Morton getting his head together

Demoted starter: 'I knew I couldn't go back out there again'

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MOOSIC, Pa. -- In an empty minor league ballpark six miles south of Scranton, with a running routine just completed under an intense afternoon sun, Charlie Morton wanted to talk.

As much about his life off the mound as he did about baseball with the Pirates.

As much about the new music he was playing (country acts Stoney LaRue, Jason Boland and Aaron Watson) as he did about baseball.

As much about the brilliant time to be had spending a holiday in one of his favorite outposts, Charleston, S.C., as he did about baseball.

That is just who is he, a man of many interests and with his mind on many things; baseball is not what Charlie Morton is, it is simply what he does.

But, hey, sorry, Charlie, we have to talk about baseball a little bit.

"Oh yeah, I understand," said Morton, who pitches for Class AAA Indianapolis and Monday gave his first at-length interview since he was placed on the 15-day disabled list by the Pirates May 28, then sent to Bradenton, Fla., and Indianapolis as part of a rehabilitation stint.

"There's been a lot going on, and I'm grateful every day for the talent I was blessed with," Morton continued. "I'm just working to make sure that I can really get back to where I want to be, do everything that I want to do in baseball."

Undeniably, where Morton did not want to be was in the catacombs of Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati the night of May 27, sitting in Pirates manager John Russell's office after going just two innings and yielding five earned runs. It forced his ERA to 9.35, dropped his record to 1-9 and drove him from the Pirates' rotation.

"I was pressing," Morton said. "I wasn't being myself on the mound those last couple times I went out there in Pittsburgh. There was so much going on in my mind. At the end of last year, I finished strong, I got a glimpse of what I could do, truly, in the big leagues, going out there and going deep into games, being competitive, being someone who was pretty good. I was taking the mound with the purpose of going seven, eight innings at the end of last year. I wasn't just surviving, I wasn't just being defensive."

Morton finished last season winning two of his final three starts and working at least seven innings in all. This season, Morton never worked more than six innings and, in his final four starts, gave up 16 earned runs and 27 hitss.

Did he want to be out there, or did management force the ball into his right hand?

"I wanted to be out there for myself and because I care about this team and organization. I can't tell you how much I care about this team and organization," Morton said. "At the same time, though, after that last one, that last start, because I care about these guys is why, exactly, I knew I couldn't go back out there again."

So his voyage -- which, he said, was a mutual decision between him and management -- took him to Bradenton first. A portion of the focus there was on his mechanics, particularly the release point.

There was more.

"It wasn't that I didn't want to be good, I just needed to grow up and this has helped me. I am still in the process of that. It's because this game is so fun and you're still a kid, I'm just a kid off the field, I really am. But I'm still learning the competitive aspects of this game."

In his time in Bradenton, Morton knew he could not go at it alone, he could not conquer that between-the-ears stuff, but he found an ally: Bernie Holliday, the organization's mental conditioning coordinator who formerly worked at West Point and with soldiers around the country.

"Bernie isn't going to make me believe in myself. That's something I have to do. That's something within me. And that's what he's taught me most. But Bernie is different than other guys I've worked with in the sense that he wants me to be who I am. He's done a whole lot for me. I can't tell you how much he's done."

With Indianapolis, Morton has started twice and is 0-1 with a 4.66 ERA. The loss came Sunday, Morton allowing three runs over six innings after a shaky opening in which the first four batters had hits.

Those around Morton insisted the latter was a positive.

"He's better when he doesn't have a lot of things going through his head when he's pitching, and we're seeing that more and more," Indianapolis manager Frank Kremblas said. "He's learning how to go to the mound and just pitch and not worry so much."

And therein lies something Morton admitted was burdensome while in the majors. He had, at times, an inability to shed negatives.

"I let things roll off my back sometimes, but there are other times ..." Morton's voice trailed off for a few seconds before resuming. "Other times, where I'll be sitting in my locker after a game I just pitched and I don't know what to feel, what to think. It drives me up a wall. This isn't easy to share with someone. It's tough to tell someone the inner feelings you have, tough even sitting here and sharing it with you. But I have learned that you have to let that stuff out. You can't carry all that with you."

He will, however, continue to carry a repertoire that includes all that phenomenal stuff. He will continue to live pitch-by-pitch, start-by-start. But, will he be back with the Pirates this year?

Morton sounds resolute. His focal point right now is getting better.

"Regardless of what happens, I like who I am, like what I've become. I'm maturing, and I've grown up a lot in a life sense. In the game, in baseball as a pitcher, I'm not anywhere near being satisfied. I've been given a tremendous opportunity, and I can't mess this up."

Colin Dunlap: cdunlap@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1459. Find more at PBC Blog .


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